Sunday, October 31, 2010

NatWest Bank - to Bank or not to Bank?

I am going to share the experience we had with NatWest Bank (National Westminister Bank). On the one hand, it all sounds insanely hilarious but on the other hand, it is turning out to be an extremely frustrating nightmare. Most of us back home, especially those who follow cricket remember the Bank as the grand sponsorer of the NatWest series.

But there’s more to it than what meets the eye. In short, it is ......

London School of Economics (LSE) is located right in the heart of London and even the location is extremely strategic, the LSE cannot afford to have the kind of sprawling campus most of the other equally reputed Universities can boast off elsewhere in UK & USA. A number of buildings located in close proximity makes up for what LSE is, located equidistant between the tube station at Holborn and the bus station at Aldwych. And I must say that LSE has made the most of the available space and is in no way less than any other campuses. In short, space has not been a constraint for LSE in attaining the new intellectual heights. And we get the advantage of being in Central London.
LSE, in one of its locations (next to Peacock Theatre) has provided a very strategic office space to NatWest Bank so that banking for students can be easy within the campus. Since we are here on Chevening Gurukul Scholarship of Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), UK, we have to necessarily open our Bank account in NatWest Bank branch located within the LSE campus. And the story starts from here.
We arrived in London on September 25th evening and 26th being Sunday, we had our welcome introductory session on Monday, September the 27th. While are here on fully funded scholarship, we had not been paid anything till we started from India and most of us (there are a total of 12 of us here from India under the Chevening Gurukul Scholarship) and were rather anxious to receive part of the scholarship as soon as possible so that we could get in the business quickly. We were informed and rightly so that we will have to have a Bank account with NatWest branch and that our scholarship amount will be deposited in our Bank account. As the first impulse thus, we wanted to open our account at the earliest but we were informed that any new account has to be opened with the prior appointment with the Bank and that’s when our appreciation of customer retail banking in UK started. Let me describe some of the management and life qualities we are made to imbibe by the Bank in the process:
It’s not like India that one goes to the Bank assuming it would be eager to open your account at the earliest. While we live in the era of privatized retail banking where the competition and the instinct to survive and excel drives these Banks to outsmart each other in attracting new customers and build business, things turned out totally different here. It’s not as if one goes unannounced, fills up the form and gets to open his/her account the same day, as is being done in most of the Indian Banks nowadays, of course by producing all necessary documents as required to prove one’s identity and credentials. I
It’s all done here in the following steps:
1. Firstly, it is mandatory that a student has to open as account with NatWest Bank which is located in LSE campus only. While the students obviously can have other Bank accounts, the dealings with LSE such as fee payment, account settlements, scholarships (for those applicable) etc will be done through NatWest branch only.
2. the account can be opened with prior appointment only -In NatWest Bank, in the first meeting, one has to go in personally, stand in the queue and meets the Bank employee when his/her turn comes and takes an appointment when he/she can come with all necessary documents which could enable them open the account. And believe it or not, the minimum waiting period is about a fortnight! Which effectively means that new students coming from all over the world have no option but to wait without any Bank account for first 15 days of their landing here. Nobody carries cash these days and one looks to have a credit/debit/ATM card as soon as possible. Plus, most of their parents would have wired the money transfer or would be waiting to do so but then all this has to wait for this period. When I went, I could see the look of horror and complete shock on the faces of these new students. Poor thing. As it is, they are bit intimidated with what LSE is and being in London and the thought of being without money initially when they have to buy books, stationary, hostel essentials and so on. We were a bit lucky since we are under Chevening Gurukul programme, an appointment was arranged for all 12 of us as a group so that we could cross this first hurdle of waiting period of 14 days!
3. The process of opening an account – LSE has a total strength of about 9000 students and at any given point of time, there are atleast 4000 students. The fresh students every year is about 2500-3000. And all of them have to open an account in the Bank. Since the semester was opening in September/October, there were atleast 200-300 students everyday in the Bank as per the appointment given to them. If the students feel that they would go at the appointed time and the account is opened, they were in for further shock. There are only three regular counter which cater not only opening of new accounts but also issue of cards and other Banking functions. So, NatWest Bank, in order to cater the peak demand has put two additional staff for opening of new account. Which means a total of 5 counters for 300 students! (effectively, it is three as the other 2 counters are catering to other functions at any given time) implying 100 students per counter and the working duration of 6 hours! It meant dealing with 15 students per hour and given the leisurely manner these guys function, two things happened – firstly, none of the students were attended on time and a minimum waiting time was at least 40minutes to an hour from the appointed time and that too on the condition that one was present on the appointed time. If for some reason, one came late but at a time when his predecessors were still waiting, he would have to take a new date as he has come late!
Secondly, the manner in which the queue moves is even more interesting. There are about 8 chairs. The student coming last will sit on the 8th chair and will shift to 7th chair as the student waiting on the 1st chair is called by any of the 3 counters. The student waiting on 7th chair moves to 6th chair as the next student is called at the counter and so on. The closest thing I can recall something similar is when as a student in 1985 I had been to New Delhi Railway Station’s newly opened computerized reservation counters in Pahargunj when I moved chair by chair to reach the ticket counter!
4. Waiting period of a week before account is operational – the story doesn’t end here. After waiting for a fortnight and having gone through the process of filling up online application form at the counter duly performing the musical chair (am sure you too are wondering why the form, if its online, can’t be filled online?), the student is informed that it will take 5 working days before the account becomes operational and the Debit/ATM card is handed over to the Student. That makes it three weeks from the time one had been successful in getting the appointment.
5. Obtaining the Debit Card and the story of PIN – and so one waits actually counting 5 working days and goes anxiously to the Bank on day 6 to get the Debit Card, all set to settle the pending accounts and go on the festive discounted sale shopping spree. One again is made to exercise on those 8 chairs before being called at the counter. The student ID issued by LSE is not a good enough proof to establish who you are and one has to carry the passport as a precondition to obtain the Debit card. Obviously, the student is mighty pleased once he gets the Debit card finally in his hand. But hold on! The joy is momentary. The student is informed that in order to operate the Debit Card, a PIN is required which will take another 5 working days! And that makes it 5 weeks since the process of opening the Bank account commenced! The student is on the threshold of his patience, as one can make out from the colors and contours of his face ( and I swear, most of them could actually break out in the choicest of abuses in the native language given a chance which they seem to be doing silently in a prayer form sitting there!). However, the Bank executive breaks the pleasant news that online booking such as booking airline tickets (time to leave LSE and go back you natives!) etc ! Well, I used this excellent facility even in the absence of my PIN in my 5th week by booking a ticket to Bristol University and it actually worked.
6. PIN arrival and whether PIN works – and so, at the end of 5th week, the student goes with bated breath to obtain the PIN hoping this might be finally the last hurdle. But wait man, what’s the hurry. In 5 out of 12 cases of ours, wrong PIN was issued. For instance, Sunil Prabhu was given a PIN of Ms S Prabhu …small clerical error shall we say! And guess what, except for one (the lucky mascot of the batch), the PIN issued didn’t work for the rest 11 of us (87% failure!) . I was worried as the ATM machine where I tried operating issued a statement asking me to contact the Bank again. And I was told when contacted that they have send a request to the head office again and it will take about another 4-5 working days and this time, they will send the PIN by post to our Home address. By now, I had given up any hope of availing festival discounts and have learnt to live frugally on the very limited cash I was carrying from India.
7. The PIN finally arrived by post 3 days back and I am finally able to operate my Debit/ATM card. The interesting thing is that the revised PIN is same as the original PIN which was issued a week before. Isn’t this really ingenious? Nobody would imagine and guess and it makes things so easy for the Bank in the process. It took almost 6 weeks before we could open our account and use the Debit/ATM card of the NatWest Bank.
8. I would also like to mention another innovative feature, NatWest has. I had a visa interview to obtain Schengen visa yesterday and needed the Account Statement from the Bank as one of the documents. NatWest Bank refused to issue my account statement to me saying that I have to do it online myself (at a time when it took 5 weeks to open my account and nobody informed us about the online facilities)! Thankfully, the Visa officer didn’t ask for the Bank statement otherwise my Schengen visa also would have got stuck.
9. And yes, I almost forgot. The Bank charges a user fee of 7 UK Pounds per month for the service it extends to us. It means I have to pay 7 Pounds for the first 4 weeks when I was struggling to open my account. Amazing!

My experience with NatWest Bank has been a discovery in its commitment to teach students the values of (i) patience, (ii) ‘never be in a hurry- things will happen’ principle; (iii) importance of ‘savings and thrift’ so what if its imposed; (iv) ‘never trust anybody’ principle – otherwise why shouldn’t the PIN work in the first go or why the Bank insists on a passport only as your identity proof and not the ID card issued by LSE which incidentally has your picture also; (v) importance of ‘physical exercising and being fit’ – remember the musical chair everytime we go there; (vi) importance of ‘camaraderie’ – the 12 of us depended on each other during our difficult times of first 5 weeks and used to lend money to each other, however little, during crises. It has brought all of us very close and the friendship is cemented lifelong thanks to NatWest Bank. We couldn’t have become so close otherwise.
So guys, close your eyes and think about NatWest Bank and the excruciating 5 weeks involved before you decide to open a new account in UK. We in India have a habit of being absolutely intolerable and criticizing everything remotely Indian. But this experience has taught the importance and efficiency of Indian Banking and how far ahead they are in terms of their customer care. Well, NatWest Bank or the branch we dealt with in particular may not be the representative of all Banks in UK but that’s unfortunately the experience we have.
Having gone through the experience we had, it is extremely hilarious to go through the customer charter of NatWest Bank. I think they realize what’s happening and wish to achieve what they aren’t. It’s like a MDG goal of halfing poverty by 2010 or eliminating gender discrimination or achieving 100% literacy etc.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time to have Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in India

We happened to visit the borough of Basingstoke and Deane today, October 29, 2010. It’s about 50 minutes train ride from London. The Borough Council is named after the largest town and the smallest village.

The borough covers an area of over 245 square miles in North Hampshire of which over 90% is rural. Over 75% of the total area is agricultural or land in other non-wooded Greenfield use. A further 15% of the borough is covered by woodland or forest. Less than 8% of the borough is built up, supporting the majority of the borough`s population of just over 162,000 people. More than 60% of the population (around 105,000) live within the town of Basingstoke, which has grown to more than five times its size than half a century ago, extending into a number of adjoining parishes. It was perhaps the ideal time to visit the borough as the foliage was at its most colourful thanks to the autumn and I could capture the beauty and have posted it on the FB.

We had quite an eventful day. The pre lunch session was packed with meetings and presentations in the Civic office of the Borough. We met the Mayor of Basingstoke followed by number of meetings. As informed, the borough is 15th best in the country in terms of value for money. The daily cost of council service is 29 p and the borough is rated 5th best in terms of customer

We were informed during the presentations that there is clear cut delineation of duties at various levels. A very indicative division of labour is as follows:
At the National level- includes National affairs, Health, crime and welfare.
The County level functions include Education, social service, Transportaion and libraries.
The District level includes Planning, Housing, Environmental services and local administration and the Parish take care of the community service.

We discussed a number of issues pertaining to Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in UK, their finances, planning and other such details which have relevance to India. One thing which has always frustrated me is that there is no higher level (one level up the local body) grievance redressal mechanism for Urban Local Bodies in India. Of course, most of the ULBs have a grievance redressel mechanism internally where in they try and attend to the complaints. Some of the bigger ULBs also have an online registration and tracking mechanism on grievances. But, it often happens that the complainant doesn’t get the proper response or is often given a very routine reply such as “your complaint has been attended to”. I have often noticed that complaints especially regarding town planning violations, encroachments and tax matters remain unresolved. As a result, the only option left, in the absence of a specific higher redressel authority, is either the Consumer court or the Civil court, both of which are time consuming process as these are not dedicated courts only for ULB and are already saddled and over burdened with lots of pendency from the past from all types of cases.

It was during my interactions with the Civic officials that I came to know about Local Government Ombudsman in UK. There are three Local Government Ombudsmen in England, each dealing with complaints from different parts of the country .

If the person has a complaint, it must first be filed with the local Council and if he is not satisfied with the council’s response, then a complaint can be filed with the Ombudsman. If the Ombudsman feels that the council has done something wrong, it aims to get it put right.
The Local Government Ombudsmen (LGO) in England investigate complaints about local authorities and certain other bodies The purpose of the Ombudsman is to provide independent, impartial and prompt investigation and resolution of complaints of injustice caused through maladministration by local authorities and other bodies within jurisdiction and to offer guidance intended to promote fair and effective administration in local government.
The LGO makes decisions independently of all government departments, councils and politicians by examining complaints without taking sides. The LGOs are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen and have the same powers as the High Court to obtain information and documents. The decisions are final and cannot be appealed. However, they can be challenged in the High Court on grounds of a legal flaw. Although, the LGO cannot order councils do what they recommend, there is no single case till date when the Councils have not followed their recommendations.
The Ombudsman investigates complaints about most council matters pertaining to County, District and Parish level including housing, planning, education, social care, housing benefit, transport and highways, complaints against antisocial behaviour and council tax.
The Ombudsmen's jurisdiction covers all local authorities (excluding town and parish councils); police authorities; school admission appeal panels; and a range of other bodies providing local services . The vast majority of the complaints the Ombudsmen receive concern the actions of local authorities and that is why they are known as the Local Government Ombudsmen. The Act also refers to limits on the Ombudsmen’s jurisdiction.
On 1 August 2007 the Regulatory Reform (Collaboration etc between Ombudsman) Order 2007 came into force. In broad terms the Order enables the Local Government Ombudsman for England, the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Health Service Ombudsman for England to work together collaboratively on cases and issues that are relevant to more than one of their individual jurisdictions. Examples of complaints that may fall within this category include the provision of health and social care; complaints about the administration of housing and welfare benefits; and complaints about some planning and environmental issues.

The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which came into effect on 1 April 2008, introduced more changes to the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction and operation. The main changes include enlarging Ombudsmen’s role by looking into service failure in addition to mal-administration, complaints about the procurement of goods and services are now within jurisdiction of LGO and that the complaints no longer need to be in writing.
In the year ended 31 March 2009, 21,012 complaints and enquiries were received. The main subjects of complaints and enquiries received are housing (22% in 2008/09) and planning (18% in 2008/09). Other subjects include transport and highways, adult care services, children and family care services, benefits and education. Our investigators deal with all types of complaints and do not specialise in particular subjects. Council wise details are given in the site of LGO .
Interestingly, there is something called Public Service Ombudsman watchers (as pointed out to me by Trever R Nunn ) whose objective is to is to motivate and help others to expose Public Service & Local Government Ombudsmen to public scrutiny. It specifically points out how difficult it is to get instances of maladministration from the LGO in UK. It is a kind of watchdog on Ombudsman which is a step ahead in the right direction.
In India, Kerala is the only State (thanks Anup for pointing it out) which has set up an Ombudsman for Local Self Government. Though it does publishes its annual report, the details of complaints ULB wise are not available. The Government of India has designated several ombudsmen (sometimes called Chief Vigilance Officer or CVO) for the redressal of grievances and complaints from individuals in the banking, insurance and other sectors being serviced by both private and public bodies and corporations . In India, Ombudsman is called as Lokpal or Lokayukta. The central Government introduced the first Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill in 1968 and lastly in 2005, which has so far not been enacted.
I feel it is time we have an Ombudsman in India dedicated specifically for ULBs and likewise for all Panchayati Raj Insititutions (PRIs).

Monday, October 25, 2010

Regulating NGO functioning - Learnings from The Charity Commission, England & Wales

What are the initial instinctive and impulsive thoughts whenever somebody asks for your reaction on the functioning of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs)? While I have been seeing the functioning of NGOs at the field level almost from 1990, the article in "Crest edition of Times of India" in its issue dated September 18th, 2010 titled "Nil at Ground Zero" brings out the stark reality regarding the murky & shady manner in which more than 90% of the NGOs operate and the absence of any semblence of transparency and accountability in their functioning. Most of them, with exceptions ofcouse which are far and few, adapt their expertise to suit the funding availability and operate on a fly by night attitude. The article mentions that out of some 3000 NGOs that are prevalent in each of the KBK districts of Orissa, hardly 100-200 are actually functional while the living conditions of the tribals continue to get worse. KBK or Orissa is no exception and similar is the case with streams of NGOs which sprung up overnight, all claiming expertise in "awareness creation" regarding HIV/AIDS campaign when they smelt huge funding available under HIV/AIDS programme of NACO. Impact assessment have shown that these awareness campaigns have made little or no difference.

What is it which make these NGOs so bold and adventurous and almost criminally impatient in their eagerness to make fast buck? Why there is no accountability? No transparency in their functioning and accounts maintenance? Why no punitive action except for occassional 'black listing' of few NGOs who are more of scapegoats while the big fish get away to the bigger crimes. There are expert consultants who help these NGOs prepare report using the appropriate jargons and terminology which suits the funders and these consultants also leverage on their 'connections' in such organizations including Government Departments guaranteeing the sanctioning of funds. And nothing comes free.

There have been serious concerns with fast eroding credibility of NGOs yet little is done to regulate their functioning. The need to have a 'Regulatory Authority' is being talked about but not much is done in this direction so far. As a result, not only the targeted segment for whom these NGOs are supposed to work continue to suffer where they were or get even worse but also the Donors start shying away over a period of time leading to crowding out of funds.

It is in this regard that I was pleasantly surprised as I studied the charity system as prevalent in England & Wales and the manner in which their functioning is monitored. England & Wales have a total of 162440 Charity Organizations:
The functioning of these Charity Organizations is under the purview of the Charity Commission. All Charity organisations located in England and Wales, whose income is more than £5000 per annum need to be registered with the Charity Commission .

The Charity Commission for England and Wales (Welsh: ComisiwnElusennauCymru a Lloegr) is the non-ministerial government department that regulates registered charities in England and Wales. The Charity Commission answers directly to the UK Parliament and to Government ministers. It is governed by a board, which is assisted by the Chief Executive (currently Andrew Hind) and an executive team.

It is often described as a Quango which is an acronym (variously spelt out as quasi non-governmental organisation, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation, and quasi-autonomous national government organisation) used notably in the United Kingdom, Ireland and elsewhere to label an organisation to which government has devolved power. In the United Kingdom the official term is "non-departmental public body" or NDPB. Britpop band Blur released a song called "Mr. Robinson's Quango" on their 1995 album The Great Escape. Quangos were also mentioned in several episodes of the popular British sitcom Yes Minister. The functioning of the Charity Commission itself is as per the provisions under the Charities Act 2006 (c 50). For the purposes of the law, a charitable organisation must demonstrate that it serves the public interest, and that its purpose lies entirely in the promotion of one or more of the following causes:

the advancement of education;
the advancement of religion;
the advancement of health or the saving of lives;
the advancement of citizenship or community development;
the advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science;
the advancement of amateur sport;
the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity;
the advancement of environmental protection or improvement;
the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage;
the advancement of animal welfare;
the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces of the Crown, or of the efficiency of the police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services;

Prior to 2008, the law assumed that advancement of education or religion were automatically in the public interest. A "public benefit" now needs to be demonstrated. The Act raises the threshold above which registration is required with the Charity Commission from £1,000 to £5,000.Charitable organisations based in England and Wales have to register with us if their income is over £5,000 a year. Charities are accountable to the public, so charities registered have to provide certain information about the way in which they operate and how they use their resources. The information is available online so everyone can see how each charity’s money is used.

To view the information on an individual charity, one can type its name or charity number into the 'Search for a charity' box at the top of every page on this website. One can also use the Register of Charities Advanced Search to find information on particular types of charity.

The Charity Commission is the independent regulator for charitable activity and the mission of the Commission is to ensure legal compliance, enhancing accountability, encouraging effectiveness and impact, promoting the public interest in charity and to promote the public's trust and confidence. The aim is to provide the best possible regulation of charities to increase their effectiveness and levels of public confidence in them. The Commission follows the principles of best regulatory practice, ensuring its actions are proportionate, accountable, consistent, transparent and targeted. The overall approach to regulation is set out in The Charity Commission and Regulation.

There’s complete information on Charities whose filing of annual accounts are due. Likewise, the site has an exhaustive detail s of all the charities that have been removed and the grounds therein. For instance, there are 68 charities whose income were £10,000,001 and above and have been removed. (this includes London Business School (LBS) which was removed in 1997 on the grounds of ‘exempt charity’ , University of North London, St. Mary’s College among others).

The Charity Commission does tremendous work in ensuring a framework of functioning of NGOs which are followed scrupulously by all the NGOs. It's not as if all NGOs in England are saints. But what's crucial is that Charity Commission has been able to pick out the bad ones from the good ones bringing in lot of credibility in the process.

And this is what's required in India. We need to have a mechanism similar to Charity Commission and which has been with the statutory powers as required to ensure systemic improvements in the functioning of NGOs in India.

By the way, I finally could buy two plants - a Solanum and a Spathiphyllum today from Homebase in Kensington for my window. The Solanum has multi colour fruits ( mainly orange, red, yellow and green) between October & December and its always a pleasant sight seeing plants as one gets up in the mornings.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Education in a global village - a Seminar on 'Sex Selection' in University of Bristol

Bristol University had organized a one day conference on "Sex Selection and Parental Investment- the interplay of technology and economic change" today ( October 22, 2010). Since the subject is close to my heart (atleast thats what I claim!) and something I am associated with for the last 7 years, I took the opportunity to attend the conference. Anyway, I had not been to Bristol so far and it gave me an intellectual enough reason to be in city of Raja Ram Mohan Roy!And it turned out to be one of the best expositions of peer review of papers.

The conference had some of the best demographers and economists working the field of sex selective abortions and trends in different countries and policy options there upon. The list included the following :

1. Prashant Bharadwaj (UC San Diego ) with Leah Nelson
Paper - "Discrimination begins in the womb: Evidence of sex selective prenatal care"
Discussant: Sarah Smith (University of Bristol)
2. Sonia Bhalotra, University of Bristol
Paper - "Where have all the young girls gone? Identifying the role of ultrasound diffusion in explaining the rising trend in sex selection in India" (with Tom Cochrane)
Discussant: Doug Almond (University of Columbia)
3. Sylvie Dubuc, University of Oxford
Paper - "Son-preference and prenatal sex-selection among Indian immigrants in the UK"
Discussant: James Fenske (University of Oxford)
4. Doug Almond, Columbia University, NY
Paper - "Son preference and the persistence of culture: evidence from Asian immigrants to Canada " (With Lena Edlund and Kevin Milligan)
Discussant: Frank Windmeijer (University of Bristol)
5. Arthur van Soest, Tilburg University
Paper - "Birth spacing, child survival and fertility in Bangladesh- Evidence from the Matlab experiment " (With Unnati Rani Saha).
Discussant: ChristineValente (University of Sheffield)
6. Aloysius Siow, University of Toronto
Paper - "Large shocks and small changes in the marriage market for famine born cohorts in China" (With Loren Brandt and Carl Vogel)
Each of the speakers apoke for about 50 minutes followed by review of the paper by the discussant and questions. And, the peer review by discussants turned out to be a real eye opener. The actual paper, based on which speakers made their presentations were already circulated to discussants in advance. They, in a very constructive manner, pointed out the fallacies, if any, and what else could be added in the paper. The most comprehensive and detailed review was by Christine on Arthur's paper on 'Matlab experiment' in Bangladesh. She pointed that sibling rivalry is missing and that one of Arthur's graph was factually incorrect among others. The most interesting review though was by Prof Frank Windmeijer on Doug Almond's paper where in Frank pointed out certain loose corelations drawn in the paper and amateurish language used while interpreting econometric anaylsis. For instance he pointed out from Doug's paper - "although statistically insignifcant, the confidence interval includes a substantially higher degree of sex selection for adult immigrants" It was truely hilarious.

I learnt during the seminar that with the advancement in scanning technology, the sex of the fetus can now be reasonably ascertained at the fetal age of 12 weeks onwards. It was about 18 weeks till recently and advancement of sex detection by 12 weeks may lead to early abortions.

Prof Sonia was most impressive in her analysis. She pointed out that education, caste and wealth are inversely related with the sex ratio at birth in India implying that as they go up, the sex ratio actually falls!! This has been emperically noticed during the 2001 census and her findings, based on the NFHS data, confirms the same.

Among others, she pointed out that the sex ratio for second and third child, if the first or first two are girls declines sharply in India:
Sex Selective abortions and falling sex ratio is no longer a phenomenon in India or China alone. What is however interesting is how Indians are spreading the malaise in other countries such as Canada, USA and UK too. It may sound a very generalistic statement but look at these graphs (based on Doug's presentation) :
It show the Sex ratio for the first child, second child when first is a girl and third child when the first two are girls in Canada. The graph shows that sex ratio for the tird child is 526 girls per 1000 boys born which means that almost 450 girls per 1000 boys are getting aborted.
LIkewise, the second graph shows the sex ratio for the 3rd child is 440 per 1000 boys among the Sikh community in Canada implying that more than 50% of the girls are getting aborted.

The same is the case in UK. Sylvie, in her presentation pointed out that even though the sex ratio in UK is not available ethinicity wise ( it is being taken up in 2011 census), she compiled the information based on ONS survey data and here too, it shows that the sex ratio has been deteriorating among Indian born mother in UK when compared with UK born mothers.

It was perhaps my first exposure to a real peer level review of papers and I was amazed at the intellectual honesty and depth with which these papers are analysed and at times tore apart. It also, in the process, becomes an intellectual aphrodisiac especially when the paper is approved, appreciated or critically commented at. It was a scenario where out of about 14 people who were in the seminar room ( including yours truely), none left anywhere from morning till 6 pm and it was one of the most intense and engaging session I have ever attended.

It was certainly my best day intellectually ever since I came to UK. Alas, it wasn't LSE! To me, a student of LSE, attending a seminar in University of Bristol which was attended by some of the best brains across the globe on a subject which is very India centric is a brilliant illustration of imbibing best of education in a global village.

Bristol, by the way, is also associated with Raja Ram Mohan Roy. It was here that Roy died at Stapleton, which was then a village to the north east of Bristol but currently a suburb, on September 27, 1833 and was buried in Arnos Vale Cemetery in southern Bristol.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

LSE, Casino Capitalism, Nita Ambani and her Indian Renaissance

“Rerum cognoscere causas (to know the causes of things)” literally means (“Fortunate is he, who is able to know the causes of things”). The latter half of the phrase, "rerum cognoscere causas", is the motto of not only the London School of Economics but also the University of Sheffield, Humberside Collegiate, the University of Guelph, the Science National Honor Society and the German newspaper Der Tagesspiege.
I was reading “A history of London School of Economics & Political Science 1895-1995” by Ralf Dahrendorf , one of the illustrious Directors of LSE in which he has mentioned about I G Patel’s farewell message in 1990 titled ‘LSE into the 1990s’ in which he said that ‘and knowledge for the sake of knowledge as well as for securing social mobility are among those that LSE has always valued’. The 1988 Education Act was castigated by him as an ‘elaborate charade’ of a policy from the Government which had made up its mind to cut their funding. IG Patel called it ‘letting the crime fit the punishment’. The LSE grew in size and left its historical total of between 3000 & 3500 students far behind in 80s. The Number now stands at 9000 plus and about 38 % of the funding come from overseas students. The proportion of post graduates declined from 50% in the early 70s and could never go up. The proportion of overseas students kept on increasing and now stands more than 60%. ‘ There can be little doubt that the reasons for the increase were not only academic”. ( Dahrendorf). Most students had their career uppermost in their minds and careers meant money making LSE more as a center of ‘casino capitalism’ ( prof Susan Strange).
The commercialism of education due to financial exigencies is a serious challenge which LSE ( and most of the other Russell Group of Universities ) are facing in UK. It is in this regard that I wish to write on a lecture by Ms Nita Ambani this evening in LSE!
We had an interesting seminar which is first in the series of CJ Modi/ Narayan PhD Fellowship public lecture this evening (October 15) titled “Towards an Indian Renaissance: Building Institutions of Excellence” by none other than Nita of Ambani fame! Well, I for one was extremely curious as to what qualifies Madam Ambani to speak on a topic as vast as Indian Renaissance and to add to the curiosity was the fact that the seminar was to be chaired by Lord Desai and introduction of Madam Ambani was to be done by Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government, Director of the India Observatory and Chairman of the Asia Research Centre at the LSE.
There were illustrious guests to attend the seminar including Mukesh Ambani, Mr Nalin Suri, Indian High Commissioner in UK among others. I was surprised at the indulging and very flattering manner in which Lord Desai introduced Nita Ambani. She was introduced as the Chairperson of Reliance Foundation, Chairperson of Dhirubhai Ambani International School and Chairperson of IMG-Reliance joint venture. Lord Desai indulged her by mentioning her as the architect of the IPL cricket team Mumbai Indians and an accomplished Bharatnatyam dancer! We were further informed that Nita Ambani is leading the Reliance Foundation and the new world-class university being set up by it. Lord Desai also mentioned that “written questions” will be taken by him at the end and that students from a prestigious institute like LSE will not ask ‘silly questions’!
Nita started by saying that she is not an economist and that she is a proud Indian. Most of us were terribly impressed by her power point presentation which I feel is the best I have seen till date. It covered 3 slides on how great LSE is with 16 noble laureates (well including Prof Paul Krugman who taught me in Princeton and to the best of my knowledge has been in Princeton for most part of his career and the likes) and a slide each on KR Narayanan and B R Ambedkar who are proud alums of LSE. She then came to the topic of the evening. She mentioned that India is looking to leapfrog on the strength of its unique endowment - a burgeoning and an incredibly huge young population. This demographic dividend, this soft power will drive the nation's trail-blazing journey to global leadership. Isn’t it amazing how, we Indians, have this tremendously wonderful talent of being eternally optimistic and seeing always positive in the worst of the scenario! At a time when the entire world is going in for measures aimed at reducing Total Fertility Rate (TFR) to as close to 2 (natural replacement rate) as possible, India has a TFR of 2.78, it was a bit amusing to observe how our inability/failure to contain population explosion was interpreted as a ‘soft power’ capable of giving as ‘Demographic dividends’. She then talked about her dream of seeing India, which was classified as a ‘third world’ country at the time when she met Mukesh (sic) climb to third most powerful nation in coming years! She impressed upon the importance of family values and mentioned that the two icons in her opinion are Dhirubhai Ambani, her father-in-law and Mukesh Ambani, her husband, from whom she has learnt so much. I wonder whether Ambani brother’s fighting like cats and dogs and putting the entire nation to amazing levels of embarrassment is also a part of ‘these family values’. The fight is so beautifully captured by Gurcharan Das in his book “Difficulty of being good” when he talks about envy and jealously and the fights between Mukesh and Anil Ambani. I also wondered what did Anil Ambani do (or didn’t) that he is not worthy of being considered as an icon by the lady Nita Ambani!
Nita described how she led the ecological transformation of the Jamnagar Refinery site of Reliance Industries Limited and the establishment of a world-class township there. She mentioned that Jamnagar which was a ‘desert’ and used to receive only 400 mm of rainfall before Reliance came there, now receives 800 mm of rainfall! It baffles me, with my limited knowledge how setting up of an industry would double the rainfall in just few years! She calrified though by saying that mango trees were planted in 1800 acres of land and that Reliance now exports not only their products from Jamnagar refinery but also mangoes amidst applause!
Ms Ambani also enlightened us on IMG-Reliance venture under which 29 young sportspersons identified from remote areas will be sent to IMG Florida for the best sports training.
Ms Nita, the Ambani mentioned that an Indian renaissance is all about knowledge and inclusion. The national aspiration is high and the key to leveraging this opportunity hinges on its capacity to harness the power of knowledge. For the young and aspiring Indians to collaborate and compete with the best in the world, education ought to get the primacy and the urgency it deserves. World-class institutions of learning and youth development with audacious vision and timeless values are imperative for an India in transition. She informed us that she is basically an accomplished educationist and a proponent of social development for two decades and how she has made significant contribution to education, healthcare, environmental protection and sports. Nita Ambani as chairperson of Dhirubhai Ambani International School provides leadership to 12 schools which educate 15,000 children. She mentioned that 6 of her students have been sent to LSE and that Reliance University is being planned to be set up as the world class institute because Mukesh Ambani is very upset as to why not a single university from India is appearing among the top 20 Global Universities! (Lord Stern in his concluding remarks later welcomed the idea and said the LSE is open to collaborate with such a prestigious concept!).
She also enlightened at length about Mumbai Indians and how she has been motivating the team to excel. She quoted from ‘Gita’ that the team should just excel and results would follow. She informed that Saurabh Tiwari is already included in the Indian team and she also mentioned about another 18 year fast bowler from Orissa who is a part of the Mumbai Indians and ‘who will be selected in the Indian team in 10 months time”. I really wonder how she knows so precisely (and we talk of and condemn the fixings in Pakistan!). I tried locating the name of the player later but couldn’t unfortunately. She also played a small video clipping of Mumbai Indian team.
She spoke about ‘education for all’ and ‘healthcare for all’ (without elaborating what she meant and how Reliance is going to contribute in trying to achieve these two objectives). She of course mentioned setting up of a world class health care institute by Reliance where health services will be provided at an ‘affordable cost’ (for whom? By whom? Whose affordability?)
She talked about four movements in Indian modern history – first being Indian independence in 1947, the second being the Green Revolution and the third being 24th July 1991 when India took the path of liberalization ( and Reliance was incidentally the largest single beneficiary) . She says the fourth movement is that “India itself is a movement”. (& there were huge applause. It was merely coincidental that most of the regular clapping and cheering originated from few individuals who otherwise looked too aged to be LSE students!).
As she sat down amidst thundering applause, I quickly wrote down my question which basically was regarding her understanding on ‘education for all’ and ‘healthcare for all’ and how Reliance intends contributing to these noble causes. But even before anybody could submit questions to Lord Desai, he took out three questions and read them out. Nobody saw, I swear, how these questions reached him! They were of course all in praise of madam Ambani.

Now few juicy tidbits about Ambanis
Ambani, his wife and three children have moved into their new home, a humble 27 storied building which is named Antilia, after a mythical Island. It contains a health club with a gym and dance studio, at least one studio, a ballroom, guestrooms and a range of lounges and a 50 seater cinema. There is even an elevated garden with ceiling space to accommodate small trees. The roof has three helicopter pads and there is also underground parking for 160 cars, which will come in handy for guests at Ambani's forthcoming housewarming party. Forbes has predicted that this is the costliest building ever constructed for residing a single family anywhere in the world.
From the top floors of the 173m high property are spectacular views of Mumbai and of the Arabian Sea. The 53 year-old tycoon is not only the richest man in India but the fourth richest man in the world. In total there is reported to be 37,000 square metres of space, which is more than the Palace of Versailles. To keep it running smoothly requires 600 staff.
According to Forbes magazine, Ambani, who owns much of Reliance Industries, the oil, retail and biotechnologies conglomerate, is worth £27 bn. Ambani does not appear to be influenced by calls by the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, according to Laura Roberts of Telegraph for business leaders to be "role models of moderation".
Mr Ambani will throw the first party at his new pad on October 28. For many, however, the gleaming tower will be an uncomfortable reminder that India's economic renaissance has delivered extraordinary benefits to a handful of hugely wealthy "Bollygarchs" but little to the 800 million Indians who live on not much more than $1.60 a day.
Mumbai has a chronic shortage of quality homes, and visitors arriving at its airport are met by a patchwork of mottled tin and tarpaulin, the building materials of the city's slum-builders. For decades, the slums have existed next to the luxurious bungalows and high-rises of India's super-rich, but not even the maharajas of past centuries showed the opulence of Mukesh Ambani, critics say. "Mr Ambani is building an edifice to his own ego," one newspaper said. "It will not go down well with the public. There is growing anger about such absurd spending."
Mr Ambani, whose Reliance Group is India's largest private company, with interests from oil to retail, has made speeches in which he professes to understand such concerns. "We cannot have islands of prosperity surrounded by oceans of poverty," he said in one.
Maybe today’s talk on Indian Economic Renaissance was one such concern of the rich and wealthy. I wonder how IG Patel, the then Director of LSE would have taken this mockery on social equity and concerns of the rich and famous in Hongkong Theatre which truly turned into a centre of ‘casino capitalism’ this evening . Thankfully, Howard, the present Director wasn’t there during the seminar and my respect for him has gone up further for this ability to differentiate between what’ relevant and useful from what’s necessary evil atleast financially!

Friday, October 15, 2010

NJ-NY underground tunnel, Demosclerosis and MGNREGA in India- is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

The fact that New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, has not favoured construction of a new tunnel between his state and New York on the grounds that a state that is currently facing multibillion-dollar annual deficits cannot afford a huge new spending project that is already looking to be $5 billion overbudget. His critics however argue that this tunnel is exactly the sort of infrastructure project that New Jersey needs if it’s to prosper in the decades ahead. I was in Princeton for an year (2006-07) and while the NJ transit (the suburban train from NY to Trenton- the District headquarter of New Jersey) could bring you t0 New York in 50 minutes from Princeton junction, the bus journey could take more than an hour and a half with most of the delay occurring as one approaches NY.
While both sides have an argument to support their claim, we must wonder why important infrastructure projects have now become unaffordable. Decades ago, when the federal and state governments were much smaller, they had the means to undertake gigantic new projects, like the Interstate Highway System. But now, when governments are bigger, they don’t.
It is primarily because Governments over the past few decades have become entwined in a series of arrangements that drain money from productive uses and direct it toward unproductive ones. For instance , New Jersey can’t afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the state’s employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year. Likewise, New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.
This phenomenon can be explained by what Jonathan Rauch defines as "demosclerosis" . It means "government's progressive loss of the ability to adapt." Rauch describes it as a side-effect of the postwar style of politics that emphasizes interest-group activism and redistributive programs. The dramatic rise of interest-groups coupled with the public's increasing demands on government, he says, have produced in "an escalating game of beggar-thy-neighbor that damages the economy and chokes the government." Today demosclerosis represents the most serious threat to the long-term vitality of American government in his opinion.
Rauch's principal argument is based on the work of economist Mancur Olson who argued that rational individuals acting in their own best interests fail to achieve their common or group interests. The sum of all the group interests in a pluralist system, he argued, does not equal the general interest. Moreover, the larger the group of people to benefit from some collective action, the weaker the incentive for any particular beneficiary to join or organize the effort. "In other words," Olson wrote, "the larger the group, the less it will further its common interests."
In a stable, democratic society, pressure groups inevitably form to persuade government to redistribute resources their way, Olson argued. Taken one at a time, these benefits have practically no effect on society as a whole, so no countervailing group arises to stop the waste. But, taken as a whole, group demands gradually sap the effectiveness and flexibility of government to the point where no program can be cut and no subsidy eliminated without arousing vehement opposition from some group or another. As the number of interest- groups in a society increases, and as the benefits secured by groups accumulate, the economy rigidifies. By locking out competition and locking in subsidies, interest-groups capture resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. Furthermore, as interest-groups and their perks and deals add up, so do laws and regulations and, by extension, the number of people who administer the laws and regulations.
The problem of interest-groups has little to do with conventional rhetoric about "special interests," according to Rauch. While most Americans feel that they are the victims of interest-group politics, he contends that the public at large has to bear responsibility for the problem. Today seven out of ten Americans belong to at least one organization, and one in four belongs to four or more. As he says, special-interest politics is no longer "special" — it is a mass movement.
"Demosclerosis isn't a problem you solve," Rauch observes. "It's a problem you manage." Moving beyond diagnosis, he offers a number of strategies for cure. For instance, he recommends a zero-sum rule to force Congress to eliminate an old program for every new one it adopts. He also advocates the deregulation of large areas of the economy, like agriculture and communications, to force government supplicants to compete strictly on their own merits.
In the process, it becomes a sort of self indulgence by the Government where they get caught in their own web of perceived popularity and this way future prosperity is compromised. The end result is sclerotic government. The ideal situation is to have a Government that ran surpluses and was dexterous enough to tackle long-term problems as they arose. But we are in a situation where present day Governments are desperately overcommitted in all the wrong ways. Liberal activism has become paralyzed by its own special interests.
Unfortunately, this is becoming a trend of the day and India is no different. About couple of years ago, on the eve of general elections, the Government waived off farmers loans worth 15.5 billion US $ (Rs 70000 crore ) benefitting 130 million farmers. While most of the small and marginal farmers who were on the verge of subsistence cultivation got benefitted, the fact remains that almost all the ‘well to do farmers’ who were otherwise perfectly capable of repaying the loans too availed the benefits of waiver.
Government of India launched a very ambitious scheme of employment generation at the village level under Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (MGNREGA) aims at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas by guaranteeing hundred days of wage-employment in a financial year to a rural household who volunteer to do unskilled manual work. During 2010-11, about 35 million families have been provided employment under the scheme. It has an annual budget of Rs 11 billion US $. While the scheme is noble in its intentions and creating an employment for 35 million families is certainly credit worthy, what is worrisome is the type of assets created at the village level most of which are non durable and not exactly infrastructure in nature. Construction of kutcha drains or desilting of tanks are not permanent asset creation. The implication of Solow model is that higher levels of investment are required to maintain the required capital-output ratio and creating too much consumption ( by increasing the income without concomitant assets will ultimately slow down the growth over a period of time apart from leading to rising and higher levels of inflation. The Harrod-Domar model also implies that a country with low capital base will gain more by adding capital than consumption. In addition, there are serious constraints in running of MGNREGA. An average of only 33 days employment is generated so far. The CAG reports points out that “The main deficiency was the lack of adequate administrative and technical manpower at the Block and GP levels, especially the Programme Officer, Technical Assistants, and Employment Guarantee Assistants. The lack of manpower adversely affected the preparation of plans, scrutiny, approval, monitoring and measurement of works, and maintenance of the stipulated records at the block and GP level. Besides affecting the implementation of the scheme and the provision of employment, this also impacted adversely on transparency, and made it difficult to verify the provision of the legal guarantee of 100 days of employment on demand." Then, there is the problem of corruption and leakages.
Likewise, the fertilizer subsidy in the country is nearing US $ 13 billion per annum. These are allocations which, however noble, are mainly knocked off by segment that is otherwise fully capable of paying. The poor and marginal farmers are often deprived of the real benefits. However, the rich farmers, through their interest groups and financial power do wield enough clout to ensure that such policies aimed at subsidization are not diluted. The compulsion of politics implies that Government is helpless watching precious resources going in not so much productive uses, a typical case of sclerotic government and something must be done to ensure that infrastructure and capital development is not squeezed out to support current consumption in the name of welfare economics. It is not a sustainable model.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

UK, US and India - a comparison of emoluments

I came across a very interesting comparison of salaries drawn at various levels in UK & US in today's session on "the Reward of leadership" by Sandy Pepper (LSE, October 13) . I added the relavant details for India and a very interesting table emerges as follows (all figures are in US $ and the exchange rate followed for the purpose is 1 UK pound = 1.5834 US$ and 1 Indian Rupee = 0.02239 US $)

Emoluments at various levels in UK, USA and India (inUS $ )
Source: House of Commons factsheet, september 2010 (for UK PM),
IDS Director's Pay report 2009/10- median total earning ( UK CEO salary), Cabinet secy & head of home civil service, Directgov report 1 june 2010 (top civil servant UK), Band A(inner London) L43, NAHT, Sept 2008 (School Principal UK) and OECD statistics 2009 (average annual earnings UK and for USA). For USA, (US president), AFL-CIO analysis of 292 companies in S&P500, 2009 (CEO salary in USA), (top civil servant USA ), (school principal salary USA). And for India, President salary is fixed at Rs 1,50,000 per month, (for salary of CEOs in India), Top civil servant salary is taken as Rs 1,30,000 per month ( at basic salary of Rs 90000 pm), School principal salary is taken as Rs 22000 pm and the average annual income is from

It is to be noted however that in India, RIL Chairman Mukesh Ambani has topped Forbes magazine's list of the 100 richest Indians for the third year in-a-row, pipping billionaires like L N Mittal and Azim Premji with a net worth of USD 27 billion.As per the Forbes research study, the combined net worth of India's 100 richest people rose to USD 300 billion this year from USD 276 billion last year, driven by the country's booming economy and a rally in the stock market.According to the Forbes India Rich List, there are 69 billionaires this year, compared to 52 last year.Ambani was followed by the steel baron Lakshmi Mittal, who retained his second position in the list with a net worth of USD 26.1 billion. However, the wealth of both of these billionaires is believed to have slipped by 15 per cent from the previous amount.There are more than 300 executives working with Indian companies with an annual salary of more than US$ 447800 per annum (Rs two crore per annum).
US is ranked 6th , UK 18th and India 123 rd in ranking in terms of per capita GDP . Interestingly, in terms of perceived corruption index, Uk is ranked 17th, US 18th and India 84th in the list of about 182 countries. India presents a unique case where the extremes in salaries is huge among the companies and a sample size of top 250 CEOs could be miselading. The average salary as seen above is low.
I have always wondered whether extremely low levels of compensation at various levels have encouraged corruption in emerging countries including India. The basic issue remains as to how the salaries are determined. It is ofcourse an interplay of demand and supply in labour market. but there are other theories also such as Principal-agent theory ( it is applicable in private owned companies), Tournament theory which presumes that organizations are like tournaments where number of people are competing to occupy the top position which are few in numbers. salary at top thus may look disproportionate and an interesting formula to determine salary at top is salary at immediate lower level divided by the probability of getting the next position. For example, if the probability is 50% , the salary doubles, if its 20%, the salary goes up by five times! The other theories are Human capital theory (Gery Becker) and Managerial pay Hypothesis.
Inferences, in terms of PPP adjusted diecrepencies and how its a detterent somewhere in achieving higher growth rates can be drawn but then we do have a very young population and the interplay of demand and supply does imply that we remain somewhat above the 'demoralisation cost' point in the pay-effort curve and very few are near the 'crowding out' point on this curve.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Human Rights & Women Rights

I am the only ‘guy’ in the class of about 22 who have opted for this course on "Human Rights of Women". And while other guys in the batch are a bit jealous, I feel defensive attending the class as if I am the epitome of all the ills that a man is! And it is turning out to be an eye opener.
I was rather surprised when informed that it was as late as in 1993 that Women’s’ rights were equated with human Rights during the Vienna convention ( The World Conference on Human Rights). Some 7,000 participants, including delegations from 171 States and representatives of more than 840 non-governmental organizations, gathered for two weeks to set out a revitalized programme for global human rights action. There was broad consensus that, with fundamental rights codified and the essential machinery in place, it was time to implement the established human rights standards and norms with greater vigilance. The Vienna Declaration, inter alia, included:
Part I, Paragraph 18
18. The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights . . . Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice
and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human
person, and must be eliminated.
Part II, Paragraph 38
38. In particular, the World Conference on Human Rights stresses the importance of
working towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private life . . . and the eradication of any conflicts which may arise between the rights of women
and the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural
prejudices and religious extremism.
I also realize that the concept of gender neutrality cant be applied to domestic violence. The victims in 95% of the cases are women, the fact that 5% of the victim of domestic violence are men may imply that focus will ultimately shift on men while ignoring 95% of women when its converted into a gender neutral subject.
We don’t realize but the fact remains that the State has a patriarchal structure. The women’s point of view that ‘we inherit a world in which men of all nations have used the statist system to establish economic and nationalist priorities to serve male elites while basic human, social, and economic needs are not met’ (Charlesworth, Chinkin and Wright) may sound feminist but is not too far from truth.
Among the Feminist legal theories, there is a considerable debate between the “equal treatment theory – liberal or sameness feminism “ and “difference theory – cultural feminism” (Gilligan). There are occasions when treating people differently emphasize their differences and stigmatize and hinder them on that basis and likewise, there are moments when treating people the same become insensitive to their differences and likely to stigmatize them on that basis.
What’s crucial is who makes the law and who implements and it’s turning out to be a man’s world yet again. And how easy it is for us to have a condescending attitude while giving small leeway here and there to women in the name of ‘gender equality’!

Visiting Foreign & Commonwealth Office- Kings Charles Street- Bahar, Cawnpour & more...

An Indian Parliamentary delegation consisting of six senior Members of Parliament who are in London visited the office of Foreign and Commonwealth Office today (October 11, 2010) at Kings Charles Street. We too were invited along with the group and it turned out to be a very interesting and educative tour especially to the then “India Office”.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office ‘the FCO’ or ‘the Foreign Office’ for short – is the government department responsible for promoting British interests overseas and supporting our citizens and businesses around the globe.
The FCO is located in a very impressive builidng in Kings Charles Street, next to Downing Street. There is an interesting history as to how this building came into being. There were several plans to build a new Foreign Office on the Downing Street site, but nothing came of them until the 1850s. In 1856 a government competition for plans for new Foreign and War Offices on the Downing Street site was announced, and in 1858 George Gilbert Scott was appointed as architect. Scott had envisaged a Gothic Foreign Office, but Lord Palmerston wanted a building in the classical style, and Scott finally succumbed and produced drawings for the building we know today. The interior was designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, Surveyor of the former East India Company and subsequently Architect to the Council of India. Wyatt could draw upon the revenues of India, as well as the proceeds from the sale of East India House, in Leadenhall Street in the City, and he could thus afford to decorate the interior courtyard of the India Office with marble, tiled friezes and a wealth of elaborate carving; and the Council Chamber and the Secretary of State for India's Oval Room with mahogany, oak and gold leaf. The courtyard was used for a great reception for the Sultan of Turkey in the summer of 1867, and the new India Office opened with an official breakfast on 29 November 1867.
After the India Office ceased to exist as a separate ministry in 1947, the Foreign Office took over the rest of its building, mainly for use by the now greatly enlarged German Department. The merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices in 1968 and the removal of the Home Office to Queen Anne's Gate in 1978, led in time to the occupation of the whole of Scott's building by the FCO. This allowed the formulation of plans to transform what had been four separate ministries into one interconnected and modernised block, while at the same time restoring historically significant areas to their original glory. A rolling programme of restoration and refurbishment was completed in January 1997.

We spent lot of time in the India Office Counsel Chamber . The Chamber was designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt. The Secretary of State for India and his Council met in this Chamber to discuss policy affecting the subcontinent, and many important decisions were taken here between 1868 and 1947. The significance of this room is emphasised by its height, size and the lavish use of gilding, and Wyatt linked old with new by transferring to it the great doors and door cases, the furniture and the great marble chimneypiece from the former Director’s Court Room in East India House at Leadenhall Street in the City. The centre panel represents Britannia, seated by the sea, receiving the riches of the East Indies. Behind stand two female figures symbolising Asia and Africa, the former leading a camel, the latter a lion. On the right, a river god represents the Thames, while in the background ships are going off to sea. I felt in awe standing in a hall which has so much relevance to India and Indian history.

Another majestic and magnificent marvel of architecture is the Locarna Suite . The Locarno Suite consists of three rooms originally designed by Scott for diplomatic dinners, conferences and receptions. The largest room, looking out on to the Main Quadrangle, was originally designated the Cabinet Room, but seems never to have been used as such in the nineteenth century. The adjacent Dining Room was also used for meetings but is best remembered as the room used by Lord Salisbury in preference to the Secretary of State’s room. Beyond is the Conference Room with its gilded ceiling supported by metal beams covered by majolica decorations.
Towards the end of our guided tour, we were shown the Durbar Court . Durbar Court, at the heart of the India Office, is the masterpiece of Matthew Digby Wyatt. Originally open to the sky, the four sides of the court are surrounded by three storeys of columns and piers supporting arches. The ground floor Doric and first floor Ionic columns are of polished red Peterhead granite, while the top floor Corinthian columns are of grey Aberdeen granite. The pavement is of Greek, Sicilian and Belgian marble.
The court was first used in 1867 for a reception for the Sultan of Turkey. The name ‘Durbar Court’ dates only from 1902 when some of the coronation celebrations of King Edward VII were held there. The names of the princely States from India are engraved and with interesting spellings such as Bahar (for Bihar), Cawnpour (Kanpur) and States such as Bombay, Puna, Madras and Hyderabad among others.
A high tea was hosted during which Rt Hon Lord Howell of Guildford, Minister of State responsible for all of FCO Business in the House of Lords, the Commonwealth, and International Energy Policy welcomed all of us. Mr Hooda, the Member of Parliament from Haryana State while thanking the Minister on behalf of Indian delegation, introduced all the MPs and also extended an invitation on behalf of Indian Government to visit India.
It was a visit with a sense of purpose and historical pride and I enjoyed.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A visit to Greenwich, Simon Singh's Code Book & more

I visited Greenwich today (October 9, 2010). It falls in Zone 2 & 3 on the SE on London and can easily be reached by DLR trains /number of buses. Greenwich is pronounced as gren-itch and is famously known for Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
Basically, there are 4 major attractions from a tourist point of view - Greenwich Park, Royal Observatory and National Maritime Museum. And one can’t miss the famous Greenwich Market while visiting Greenwich. It is also a point of Prime meridian where longitude is ‘0’ .
We all know Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) . GMT is a term originally referring to mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and is commonly used in practice to refer to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) when this is viewed as a time zone .To help others synchronize their clocks to GMT, a time ball was installed by Astronomer Royal John Pond in 1833. It still drops daily to mark the exact moment of 1 p.m. (13:00) year round. The observatory at Royal actually was used till 1954 to calculate the time. The scientific work of the observatory has since been relocated elsewhere in stages in the first half of the 20th century, and the Greenwich site is now maintained as a tourist attraction.
Royal Observatory - The Royal Observatory was commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II. At this time the king also created the position of Astronomer Royal (initially filled by John Flamsteed), to serve as the director of the observatory and to "apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation." British astronomers have long used the Royal Observatory as a basis for measurement: four separate meridians have been drawn through the building. The basis of longitude, the Prime Meridian, established in 1851 and adopted at an international conference in 1884, passes through the Airy transit circle of the observatory. As the United Kingdom grew into an advanced maritime nation, British mariners kept at least one chronometer on GMT in order to calculate their longitude from the Greenwich meridian, which was by convention considered to have longitude zero degrees. Note that the synchronization of the chronometer on GMT did not affect shipboard time itself, which was still solar time. But this practice, combined with mariners from other nations drawing from Nevil Maskelyne's method of lunar distances based on observations at Greenwich, eventually led to GMT being used worldwide as a reference time independent of location. Most time zones were based upon this reference as a number of hours and half-hours "ahead of GMT" or "behind GMT.We needed to have a prime meridian from where all longitude could be calculated. In 1884 a conference in Washington of 25 nations agreed that Greenwich would be the world's Prime Meridian of world time and time zones. Every place on the Earth is measured in terms of its distance east or west from this line. The line itself divides the eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth - just as the Equator divides the northern and southern hemispheres. Up until 1884 a majority of the world used Greenwich to set their clocks by. Although it did not influence the decision it seemed a fitting tribute to the hard work of John Flamstead and the Royal Observatory.It was long marked by a brass strip in the courtyard, now upgraded to stainless steel, and, since 16 December 1999, has been marked by a powerful green laser shining north across the London night sky. Visitors to the Observatory can stand in both the eastern and western hemispheres simultaneously by placing their feet either side of the Prime Meridian. (As I Stand in this funny picture!)
The Royal Observatory is located in the sprawling Greenwich Park which covers 73 hectares (183 acres) and is the oldest enclosed Royal Park. It is situated on a hilltop with impressive views across the River Thames to the Docklands and the City of London, between Blackheath and the River Thames. Greenwich Park provides a setting for several historic buildings, including the Old Royal Observatory, the Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum and the Queen's House. Greenwich Park will host the Equestrian and Modern Pentathlon events during the London Olympics 2011. Crowds of 23,000 in the main arena and more in the park will be able to enjoy the competitions.
National Maritime - The National Maritime Museum (NMM) was opened to the public by King George VI on 27 April 1937. It includes the 17th-century Queen's House and, from the 1950s, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The Museum has the most important holdings in the world on the history of Britain at sea, including maritime art (both British and 17th-century Dutch), cartography, manuscripts including official public records, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments, time-keeping and astronomy (based at the Observatory), and in many other categories. It has the world's largest maritime historical reference library (100,000 volumes) including books dating back to the 15th century. The Museum is also unique in the architectural importance of its main buildings, the Queen's House in particular being the keystone of the historic park-and-palace landscape of 'Maritime Greenwich', which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Greenwich market: There has been a market at Greenwich since the 14th century, but the history of the present market dates from 1700 when a charter to run two markets, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, was assigned by Lord Romney to the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital for 1000 years. The 1980s saw a revival in the fortunes of Greenwich Market; the first arts and crafts market opened on 14th May 1985, inspired by the flourishing example of Camden Lock, and from 1987 the shops around the markets periphery were let to new tenants largely in the craft business. It is an interesting market to explore artifacts, paintings, books and eateries. Infact. I could get Simon Singh's "The Code Book" in the market which I had been looking for a long time and this was one of the high points of my visit today.
In 1997, Maritime Greenwich was added to the list of World Heritage Sites, for the concentration and quality of buildings of historic and architectural interest. These can be divided into the group of buildings along the riverfront, Greenwich park and the Georgian and Victorian town centre. In recognition of the suburb's astronomical links, Asteroid 2830 has been named 'Greenwich'.
As one stands on the Observatory , one gets a breathtaking view of the city including Thames and Millennium Dome which incidentally is the World's biggest Dome build on the Meridian Line in Greenwich.
A visit to London is incomplete without Greenwich being a part of the itinerary